Mini-Mythologies #1 [+ Tomb Raider (Roar Uthaug, UK/USA, 2018)]

American cinema, Blogpost, Mini-Mythologies, Uncategorized


Don’t ask me why I went to see Tomb Raider. But I did.

However, while I want to offer a brief critique of the film below, I also figured I’d use this blog as an opportunity to start something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, which is basically to write mini-critiques of adverts, both posters and audiovisual pieces – in the spirit of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. Hence ‘mini-mythologies.’

Numerous adverts preceded Tomb Raider, but four caught my eye in particular.

The first was ‘Five Go On a Great Western Adventure,’ a pleasant enough animation that sees the Famous Five take a train journey to the coast, but with dog Timmy getting separated from the rest of the gang and ending up travelling via other means to the same destination.

Created by adam&eveDDB, what is interesting about this advert is that Timmy arrives at exactly the same time as the other four of the Five, in spite of going for a long stretch in a hot air balloon, a motorbike with a sidecar, and then a speed boat.

Now, some speed boats can go quite fast. But on the whole, I’d imagine that a speed boat cannot go as fast as a train by any stretch. Certainly a hot air balloon cannot go as fast as a train.

Except, of course, when the train is very slow because of problems with the signals, leaves on the track, a touch of snow, and all of the other things that go to make British rail services generally disappointing.

In suggesting that the train only goes as fast as a hot air balloon, are adam&eveDDB in fact suggesting the true nature of Great Western Railway trains – namely that they also go at a speed that is dictated by the whims of the weather rather than by man’s technological advantage over nature?

The second advert is Dell’s Introducing Dell Cinema. The above is not quite the version that I saw, but it comes close enough.

Several things. Firstly, Dell suggests that watching a movie on a laptop is the equivalent of watching a movie at the cinema. It may be that we mainly watch films on computers now, as we have progressed from standing to sitting to lying down before movies, in the process prostrating ourselves before cinema as if it were a god. But in other ways, one wonders that what is missing from solo (solipsistic?) film viewing is the communal aspect of the cinema, which is not to mention simply the sound and image quality of the theatrical venue: hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent on cinemas, and unless you are very rich, home viewing, especially on a laptop, will never match it.

Nonetheless – and here is my second point – in suggesting that it can match it, we have a re-emphasis as communal something that is essentially solitary – watching a movie at home.

Thirdly, that the laptop aspires to be cinema suggests that culturally cinema is still at the top of the pile as far as being a medium that connotes power. A laptop does not aspire to be a laptop; it aspires to be a cinema.

Fourth, it is ironic that the snippets of ‘cinema’ that we see are in fact ‘television’/laptop shows like The Crown and Stranger Things. While we do live in an era of technological convergence, whereby laptop shows and movies are made using the same equipment, there is nonetheless a false claim being made here. The Dell machine is not cinematic, but televisual. However, it claims to be cinematic in order to empower itself. In other words, as per the GWR advert above, the advert lets slip that it is lying to us (that it is an advert, if all adverts are in certain respects lies, or mythologies).

Finally, that the laptop – which initially was a tool devised for computing – is now a tool sold for the purposes of viewing, suggests a shift from work to entertainment. Or more accurately, it suggests the immaterial labour that is screen-viewing for the purposes of the attention economy. It suggests how entertainment is used to keep us looking at the screens in order to keep the wheels of commerce turning. And it suggests that consumption via ‘cinema’ viewing is, again, a better thing to do with one’s time than production, especially if one might produce something that challenges the status quo by being a product not from the sanctioned sources. That is, the Dell Cinema is an anti-revolutionary machine designed to keep us staring at screens rather than bringing about a better world.

Third up is Halifax’s Top Cat advert.

In this advert, TC basically lies to a woman at the Halifax in order to get a mortgage from the bank, employing Benny to play a sad violin score, while other cats stand around outside pretending to be homeless children.

Not only is the advert basically a riff on Top Cat as a ‘benefit scrounger,’ lying to the Halifax in order to get money. But in making TC the hero, the bank is also encouraging people to take out loans.

Why is it doing this?

Well, in part it would seem to be doing this because clearly after the 2008 economic crisis, which was in large part based on sub prime loans, it would seem that banks are up to exactly the same thing again: handing out cash to anyone who asks for it.

But more than this… the banks are doing this because we live in a culture that wants to use debt as a form of control. Not only does debt help to stave off crisis (if I have debt that I cannot pay back, then I must create more debt from somewhere else in order to pay it back temporarily, a bit like the gambler who thinks that doubling up a bet after a loss is what will make them their money back). But this attempt to stave off the crisis is unsustainable: using debt to pay off debt will ultimately come crashing down, as happens during crisis and as happens to the gambler.

The Halifax advert, then, is a signal of a new, impending crisis. But not only this: it demonstrates that crisis is exactly part of the natural cycle of capitalism – its very rule, rather than being an exception to it.

And it is this because debt will keep people enslaved, rather than able to create new or different economies. So while TC thinks he is being super savvy in conning the Halifax out of some money, in fact he is being duped. I can guarantee that the bank will not be so kind to him when he cannot pay off his mortgage.

Although not included in the version here, the cinema advert also includes ‘out-takes’ at the end of the advert. A mildly amusing gag, in that animated out-takes are clearly not out-takes at all, the advert uses the illusion of exposing labour (look at the failed attempts that we went through to make this advert) in order to keep labour hidden (but these are manufactured failures and not real failures at all).

Top Cat is a television character, but the ‘out-take’ is more common to cinema. Not only is there an aspiration to being/becoming cinematic going on here, but it also is linked to the idea that cinema is about not working – and that money and good things can and should come for free, an ideological trick that is played precisely to keep people working – in the hope of becoming cinematic…

Another advert, then, another lie.

And finally, there is a new Max Factor advert that I cannot share here, and in which we see make-up being applied to a woman in order to bring out ‘the leading lady’ in her. The usual awful clichés apply, with the advert suggesting that it is ‘her time,’ with the possession of time here being precisely the myth that drives much of capitalist society: that time is something that we can possess and use rather than something that flows through us and which we are incapable of controlling.

What is more, the imbrication to insist that it is ‘your time’ basically is a byword for saying that you will truck nothing that does not sit comfortably with your worldview. That is, the endorsement of ‘my/me time’ is equally an endorsement of greed, selfishness, solipsism and a destruction of relationships with others.

Importantly, this greed/solipsism is linked explicitly to cinema: to behave this way is to be cinematic, or to be a leading lady. So cinema is again a chief tool for capitalism, and something to which we must all aspire.

Notably, this is also at the root of the cosmetics industry. This is not simply a cheap point in that cosmetics reaffirm superficiality and an emphasis on appearances/the visual. But more specifically it bespeaks how numerous humans prepare themselves visually not to be seen by other people, but to be seen by cameras in order then to be seen in images.

For, to be seen in images/to be cinematic is, as mentioned, a sign of power and/or a sign of someone with money (even if it is debt). Indeed, to be in images is to be/become a sign/icon, with money itself being a sign and an icon (i.e. we want to be/become money, or cinema, with cinema and capital thus being basically the same thing). We live in a world that worships icons, that upholds becoming an icon as the highest achievement, and which worships money. To become cinematic is the summum of achievements.

In order to become an icon, one must dispense of or deny one’s body; one must cover or make it up so that it cannot be seen. So to be/become cinematic, and thus to deny one’s body, enables the cosmetics industry to exist as such. It relies upon making people feel ashamed about their bodies, which are too real and not cinematic enough, and thus modifying their bodies not in order to be real, but to be cinematic. So when the advert sells you ‘your time,’ it is in fact selling you a fake time, since ‘your time’ only comes about when you are not yourself, but when you are an image. Again, then, the advert is lying to you.

As for Tomb Raider, a few thoughts:-

  1. Lara starts out poor because she has not accepted her inheritance from her father because she cannot accept that he is dead. Fair enough. On some levels. Except that Lara clearly is not poor, and yet slums it in London. This is disingenuous tourism among the poor (‘poorism’), which makes Lara somewhat objectionable and dishonest. Indeed, when we see Lara’s flat with skylights and rooftop terrace… she clearly has used money from outside of her bicycle courier job – because I could not afford such a place and I earn a respectable wage.
  2. Lara’s daddy issues subvert any claims to empowered femininity that the film might otherwise purport to offer.
  3. Of course, Lara cannot have sex with anyone, and does not. Because powerful women cannot have partners (because they are too good for everyone else?).
  4. When Lara discovers her father’s hidden lair of treasure… we get a sense of how the Croft family wealth is predicated upon theft – a basic re-enactment of colonialism. As Lara denies her class, so she denies in some senses a history of colonial theft – in order to justify and perpetuate it.
  5. The film’s other women are basically carriers of a plague and/or corporate bitches.
  6. Spoiler. Lara discovers at the end that the woman to whom she has given power of attorney over her fortune is basically heading up the evil corporation that is seeking power via colonial theft. Obviously a cue for sequels. But importantly, Lara does not do anything specific about this, like launch an investigation into anything. Apparently she cannot because she does not have ‘power of attorney.’ But if the attorney were unsuitable, a court would surely be sympathetic, and indeed want criminal activity to be investigated and stopped. But Lara does not take this course of action, not least because it would not be cinematic, but instead a bit boring. So what we learn, then, is that Lara really needs her own company to be doing evil things so that Lara can have her adventures. In other words, Lara does not want the evil to end at all, but in fact wants it, because she is part of it. Because she is indeed an expression of rich, white (and here feminised) colonialism, faking some affinity/kinship with the lower classes and in fact justifying the exploitation of the rich by the poor. Lara in fact endorses the slave labour that one of her companies is carrying out. As it is with Lara, so it is with Tomb Raider.

There are other things to discuss (like the fact that the diseased woman that is found at the film’s end infects and kills people really quickly, and yet within the final tomb there are neatly arranged bodies, as if the disease were really just a genteel experience… while the elaborate underground tomb must have taken years of slave labour to build, begging the question of what happened in the meantime to the plague bearer… and a thought that if the threat of her plague were so real,  then you’d just burn the woman and illico/immediately, rather than waiting for ages to build a ceremonial tomb in which to place her… which in being accessible, even if difficult to reach, only begs the usual question about King Kong: if you don’t want the monster to escape, don’t build a gate big enough for the monster to fit through. Clearly the plague is supposed to escape. Clearly Lara wants the plague to spread, just as the map of her company’s holding looks suspiciously like globalisation, like globalisation as plague, the plague being capital, that Lara needs in order to be rich, while at the same pretending to be poor.).

But I shall leave it at that…

Erase and Forget (Andrea Luka Zimmerman, UK, 2017)

Blogpost, British cinema, Uncategorized

Andrea Luka Zimmerman is clearly one of the most important voices in British contemporary cinema and perhaps art more generally.

Her Taşkafa, Stories of Street (Turkey, 2013) is a fascinating investigation into the lives of street dogs in Istanbul – a precursor to Ceyda Torun’s Kedi (Turkey/USA, 2016), and in some senses unjustly overshadowed by the latter, charming though that film is.

Meanwhile, Estate, A Reverie (UK, 2015) is – alongside Enrica Colusso’s Home Sweet Home (UK, 2012) – one of the most important investigations into the condition of housing in contemporary London, focusing especially on the displacement of long-term estate residents for the purposes of renewed property development (which is perhaps a euphemistic way of saying gentrification).

With Erase and Forget, Zimmerman provides us with an investigation into the life of Bo Gritz, a former soldier who supposedly is/was the real-life inspiration for John Rambo, the maverick soldier who is the central character of such films as First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, USA, 1982), Rambo: First Blood Part II (George Pan Cosmatos, USA, 1985), Rambo III (Peter MacDonald, USA, 1988) and, latterly, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, Germany/USA, 2008).

However, where we might expect something go an aggrandisement of heroism and service to and for one’s country, instead we have really a quite extraordinary investigation into something like post-traumatic stress disorder (I say ‘something like’ because it is not revealed ay any point whether Gritz has been diagnosed).

Zimmerman’s film is not simply remarkable for having access to a remarkable figure. Nor is it simply remarkable for having been made on a shoestring.

What equally makes Zimmerman’s film remarkable is how its lack of budget is in fact one of its chief virtues, rendering Erase and Forget not just a powerful documentary, but also in many respects a work of art. That is, it is not simply the film’s content that is remarkable, but also its form.

To describe the film’s form, I am going to use the term non-cinema.

To describe a work of cinema as non-cinema may sound like the sort of thing that a wankstain academic who has nothing to do with their time but invent poncey-sounding terms would come up with in order deliberately to confuse people and in the process endeavour to use that confusion as a way of making the reader feel stupid and thus the author to seem clever.

Perhaps it goes without saying that this is not my intention – even if, as a feeble-minded human being, this ends up being the result.

But in a bid to stave off that result, let me do my best briefly to explain what I mean by non-cinema.

By non-cinema, I mean a set of values that typically are not found in cinema, and which perhaps are antithetical towards – not because one cannot find those values in certain films, but because those values do not conform to the drive for profit that is at the heart of cinema (and capitalism more generally).

The drive for profit (rather than, say, subsistence) requires permanent growth, which can be achieved in large part through (and thus in some senses logically demands) exploitation.

Exploitation requires humans to consider each other not as humans, but as things or objects or units of production – with my profit being predicated upon my ability to yield ever-greater production from my workers/units of production, while at the same time trying to reduce how much money I spend on protecting and ensuring the health and safety of my workers/units of production.

What is true of workers is true of resources: since profit is my over-riding goal, then I must find not the best but the cheapest way of creating products. In considering my raw materials and my workers as merely things, they become objects that are deprived of humanity.

A capitalist society, then, is a society in which we see people not as people but in some respects as symbols or as objects. This creation of people as symbols de-realises or dehumanises them (they’re just a symbol, so you can do with them what you want). It also creates separation where otherwise there might be connection.

That is, capitalism and its necessary exploitation leads to the creation of class divisions (rich and poor), as well as to the concept of (private) property (this is mine and not yours), which in turn leads to an ethos of selfishness and not sharing, and which in turn is linked to the idea that the self is a sovereign entity that does not rely on, want contact with, or which depends upon others, but which is entirely able to live on its own.

In the language of Simon and Garfunkel (and against John Donne), it is to say: I am a rock, I am an island. In the language of Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is say that I am self-reliant. And in psychoanalytic terms, it is to create a phallocentric society, in that the individual stands like a hard, solid cock, not interesting in touching of making love with someone else, but interested in pumping and pounding the other – i.e. once more treating them like an object.

This is, then, the world of patriarchy, and it is also the world that, during the onset of neoliberal capital in the 1980s saw mainstream films characterised by the hard, phallic bodies of action stars like, precisely, Sylvester Stallone – who killed other human beings with impunity and without remorse (in the sequels if not in First Blood, as director Ted Kotcheff pointedly remarks).

Not only is the cinema of capital a cinema that reflects this hard-bodied, phallocentric outlook, then. But perhaps cinema, in being a medium that almost as a matter of course turns human beings into symbols dancing around hieroglyphically on a screen, is also inherently capitalist.

More than this. For, as we are encouraged to respect the rich and to disrespect the poor, so does the separation of humans into classes not just involve a separation, but also a hierarchisation (rich above poor, both socioeconomically, morally, and on nearly every other level that we can think of).

More still: not only are we are encouraged to respect the rich and to disrespect the poor, but we also are encouraged to respect richness and to disrespect poverty. That is, I do not respect the other as a human, but I disrespect them because they are poor (or I want to steer clear of them since they might contaminate me with dirt, disease, bad luck, and so on). That is, I see the other not as a human who to be poor, but as an incarnation of poverty. That is, I see the other not as a human but as a symbol. That is, the symbol becomes more real than the actual human. That is, symbols become the measure of reality more than reality becomes the measure of symbols (we consider humans to be inferior because they are poor, rather than considering poverty to be an inadequate concept since it discourages us from seeing the poor person not as poor but as a person).

Finally: as we see rich humans as being better than poor humans (and as everyone therefore pursues the goal of becoming rich, or special, or famous, or phallcentrically like a hard cock to be admired), so, too, do we see rich images (images that require a lot of money to create) to be better than poor images (images that are made on a shoestring).

If this is true (or if we allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that this claim has some truth), then the idea behind saying that something is non-cinema, then, is because it ignores or critiques capitalism, or it tries to find another way of depicting the world that is not capitalist. If cinema is capitalist, then non-capitalist cinema has to be something that cinema is not, i.e. non-cinema.

Put differently: while rich images might be created to critique the system of rich images as being inherently superior to poor images (as rich people are perceived as inherently superior to poor people as a result of the separation of rich from poor that was a necessary result of exploitation, which was demanded by the relentless pursuit of profit), it seems unlikely that, as rich images, they will do anything other than reinforce the idea that we should only look at rich images.

So, if you want to create images that challenge the system of validating only rich images at the exposed of poor images, then you have really to create what Hito Steyerl might term poor images. Or you have to create non-cinema.

Kedi opens with an aerial shot of Istanbul taken from a drone. Taşkafa, meanwhile, opens with a handheld shot of a dog lying in the street, its paws in the air in a heliotropic trance.

Where Kedi‘s opening shot suggests power and mastery through its technologically-enabled overhead drone shot, Taşkafa suggests something much more pedestrian and poor. Indeed, the opening shot of Taşkafa sees the camera film the dog for a bit, then approach it to reframe closer up – and then approach and go round the other side of the dog to reframe it again.

Rather than appearing as if made without effort (the drone shot from Kedi), Taşkafa makes clear the work that has gone into its making.

While the film is obviously made up of symbols (since it is a film), Taşkafa at least goes to the effort of demonstrating in its opening shot, though, that we are seeing nothing more than symbols, and that these are constructed. In revealing its own process of creation, the images from Taşkafa do not arrive as if fully-formed and perfect (like a god), but as imperfect and human. Taşkafa demonstrates its humanity from the get-go – in the process using symbols to undermine the system of symbol creation that is cinema.

In being a ‘poor image,’ Taşkafa runs the risk of alienating its viewers, since they may not like poor images – in a way that is similar to how they do not like poor people. But at least  in the process, the poor image points out to to the alienated viewer how their dislike of poor images expresses little more than their own prejudices and a subservience to phallocentric power – on an ideological level even if not on a physical level (it is common enough for poor people to dislike poor images, precisely because they are ashamed of poverty, a shame brought about not least as a result of being treated like a part of society of which to be ashamed; perhaps inevitably such tastes can veer towards the ‘gauche’ as any and every sign of wealth, be it sophisticated or crass, is better than a sign of poverty).

But perhaps enough explanation of non-cinema and discussion of Taşkafa. For this blog post is about Erase and Forget, and thus should do justice to that film by properly giving it its due.

In being a film about the real-life John Rambo, Erase and Forget is clearly in some ways about cinema – or about the way in which cinema reinforces a masculinist, hard-bodied sense of separation, individual heroism, personal sovereignty and violence.

And yet, Erase and Forget also in some senses deconstructs that myth, allowing us to see not just Gritz as a performer of ultimate masculinity and, quite specifically, as a symbol of American heroism.

Instead, we see a remarkable portrait that goes beyond the cinema of Rambo – and into the non-cinema of a human being. As cinema is part of a system that replaces humanity with symbols, Erase and Forget tries to replace symbols with humanity.

Gritz is an inspiration to children who want to grow up to be like him. That is, Gritz clearly is understood by many people as a symbol.

And yet, Zimmerman then includes in her film a sequence in which she plays back an encounter between Gritz and two young men who wish to follow in his footsteps – only for Gritz to comment while watching the video that these kids are wasting their time as they will only get killed in combat and/or scarred irreversibly by their otherwise-desired experiences of war.

This moment is significant in at least two ways.

Firstly, it undoes the myth of violent heroism, suggesting that war as a process of ensuring separation between countries is in some senses futile.

Secondly, it does this by showing Gritz watching a video of himself at a moment that we have already seen as a part of Erase and Forget. That is, akin to the opening shot of Taşkafa, Erase and Forget shows its own process of being made, thus also undercutting the very process of symbol-making that is cinema itself.

What is most remarkable is that in being so honest about its own imperfections – in being a human cinema – Gritz allows himself to become more human, too.

That is, Gritz clearly develops a close and trusting relationship with Zimmerman, such that he is willing at times to let his guard down and to express his disillusionment with war and perhaps with various other aspects of contemporary life more generally.

In other words, in not treating Gritz as a symbol (which is how most people do treat him, including his lovers from what Gritz says), we get the most remarkable aspects of this film, namely access to intimate parts in which Gritz is not necessarily not performing, but in which he offers to us a performance that is different from the one that he is carrying out most of the time as a war hero.

It is important here to emphasise that Gritz is not consistent. That is, Zimmerman’s film does not show us the ‘real’ Bo Gritz that lies underneath the ‘fake’ Bo Gritz that walks around performing heroism and/or performing being a war hero.

Indeed, if the film did this, it would not demonstrating that symbols are constructed as simply trying to replace one symbol with another (this symbol of Gritz is the ‘real’ one).

If the film is to deconstruct the system of symbols as a whole, then it has to show the many Gritzes alongside each other: he is all of these different sides to his personality, and he is inconsistent, and sometimes he does believe in his heroism and at other times he does not. And sometimes he seems to prefer to recount his life as if he were a legend, and sometimes he feels sorry for himself.

It is not in his singularity that the humanity of Gritz will emerge. It is precisely in his plurality, his multiplicity, his complexity. And it is not that the film will give us the full complexity of Gritz. In some senses, cinema, as a system of symbols, cannot achieve this. But rather than presenting us an incomplete picture as if it were the complete picture, it can make clear that we are seeing is incomplete. It can point to the outside of cinema, to the human, and thus be (or at least point to the realm of) non-cinema.

The Bo Gritz story is truly remarkable, with the man having played a role in Vietnam, Panama, the Middle East, Ruby Ridge, and more. He is a man who has struggled with life – having attempted suicide at one point and being surrounded by violence at many points (with a violent death also taking place during the film’s making).

Zimmerman’s film is all the more remarkable for not shying away from this complexity, while also embracing its own limitations (being self-conscious – including by having the film’s original images feature alongside images from various Rambo and other films – but taking low-grade DVD-rip YouTube images from these films, thereby creating a shift in image quality in the film, again bringing to mind/making the viewer conscious of the how we somewhat arbitrarily put out faith in rich images more than we do in poor ones).

Gritz is a fragile human being. But in showing his struggle with reality and with himself, the film highlights the very impossibility of being human in an era when we are supposed to see each other and to turn ourselves into symbols. Since the human is inferior to symbols, we are encouraged to hate ourselves and our human aspects, and to eliminate them for the purposes of being only symbolic or existing only in the symbolic realm.

Rather than pick apart Gritz’s possible insanity, then (in the sense that Gritz is inconsistent), Erase and Forget instead takes us into that insanity, depicting how a certain kind of schizophrenia is the logical result of an inhuman world in which to be human is shameful. It does this by itself being a ‘crazy’ film – perhaps in some ways not even a film at all (not a ‘proper’ film made with a ‘proper’ budget).

[In this way, there is some resemblance between Erase and Forget and William English’s recent It’s My Own Invention (UK, 2017), which likewise takes us into insanity not in a bid necessarily to bunk or to debunk it… but show it as a kind of logical extension of a world where humans suffer from the collective insanity of mistaking symbols for reality.]

Zimmmerman’s refusal to buy into the language of symbols makes Erase and Forget about the most human, if non-cinematic, piece of cinema going…

Orfeu branco: You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, UK/France/USA, 2017)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

If The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2017) recently won the Oscars for Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Score (for Alexandre Desplat), then clearly the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is completely incapable of discerning what makes a good film. Or rather, its concerns seem very far removed from mine, and its definition of cinema is vastly different from mine.

The Shape of Water is perfectly competent, and it has a few nice ideas. But it is nothing like the total masterclass in filmmaking that is You Were Never Really Here, which sees three of the finest filmmakers in the world (Lynne Ramsay, Joaquin Phoenix and Jonny Greenwood) at the absolute top of their game (which is not to mention the film’s excellence in cinematography, editing, general sound design and more).

Oscar has deemed fit to reward You Were Never Really Here with zero nominations, suggesting that it is not interested in what I would call mature storytelling, but rather the infantile fantasies that we see peddled in The Shape of Water.

(Although, if Oscar is going to reward kids’ movies, then why it has not honoured the superior Paddington 2, Paul King, UK/France/USA, 2017, seems incomprehensible to me.)

Anyway, a gripe about how the Oscars seem to revel in a kind of puerile conservatism aside (the recognition of Jordan Peele and Sebastián Lelio’s work notwithstanding), this blog just wants to offer up a few thoughts about Lynne Ramsay’s masterpiece, which seems unlikely to be topped for me between now and the end of the year.

Firstly, Lynne Ramsay seems to have seen and to have taken notice of the growing body of work by the Safdie brothers, with its moody, claustrophobic cinematography and Greenwood’s dark retro synth score bringing to mind the recent Good Time (Ben and Josh Safdie, USA, 2017), with which You Were Never Really Here is in many ways comparable, given its emphasis on New York by night, New York on the move, and the interiors of lower middle and working class domestic spaces.

The other recent film that You Were Never Really Here resembles is S. Craig Zahler’s equally moody Brawl in Cell Block 99 (USA, 2017) – with ‘moody’ here clearly being a by-word for an emphasis on darkness, confined spaces, and an ambulatory approach to violence that is physical, intimate and gory.

For, You Were Never Really Here and Brawl in Cell Block 99 are both re-tellings of the myth of Orpheus, who must descend into the underworld in order to rescue Eurydice. But unlike Marcel Camus’ Orfeu negro/Black Orpheus (Brazil/France/Italy, 1959), which casts the myth alongside carnival and the slums of Rio de Janeiro, thereby giving a sense in which poverty is hell, in both Ramsay and Zahler’s films, hell is entering into the dark corridors of power – be that of the state’s penitentiary system in the latter, or the kiddy dungeons of the rich in the former.

The motif of ‘descent’ is clear as on at least two occasions, we see Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe drop into frame from above – giving a literal sense of downwardness to his journey.

But in addition to being about downwardness, the film is also about absence – as the title of the film makes clear.

Joe is a military veteran whose hulking frame carries numerous scars, and who seems to have been shot, or witnessed a shooting, by a kid in a vaguely Middle Eastern-seeming location during his service. Now home, he rescues missing children from sex traffickers, while also living with his mother (Judith Roberts), whose health is clearly not great. Both his mother and Joe suffered at the hands of an abusive husband/father, with both Joe’s childhood and his military experiences being given to us in flashbacks that are haunting both for their brevity and for their beauty.

Ramsay’s film time and again marries the brutal with the tender, with an especial emphasis being articulated time and again on human touch and the feel of objects (hands on windows, hands on hands, hands on feet, and so on). Culture also is able to bring humans together, as characters sing songs (including an astounding sequence that sees two characters sing along to Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’).

What is more, Joe and his mother bond over Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960), a film that is most famous for achieving maximum shock value while also showing next to nothing.

And in this intertext we get a sense of Ramsay’s mastery. It is not just that a good amount of the violence in You Were Never Really Here takes place offscreen, as per Psycho. It is that the film repeatedly stages Joe leaving the frame, with the picture then simply showing the spaces of the film’s action, rather than the action itself. This includes the film’s utterly absorbing final image, in which we see nothing more than a table at a diner where human figures earlier sat.

(Apologies for the vagueness in not saying who those figures are. But where normally I do not care about giving away spoilers, here I think it works to give as little of the film away as possible.)

With its emphasis on ’empty space,’ the space within the film becomes a ‘character.’ But more than this, we get a sense that space shapes character and behaviour more than human agents shape space.

That is, You Were Never Really Here suggests that humans are in effect utterly mindless in their belief that they are in control of their destiny and their choice of action, with the film seeking to make us mindful of how it is the environments that we create that shape our actions. New York lends itself to violence and to the trafficking of children for sex – even if any reasonable person would say that it is humans who are responsible for their depravity. It is not that humans are not responsible for their depravity; but we build environments where depravity is encouraged, and so it inevitably will grow.

Perhaps we can get a sense of this through the film’s final sequence, in which Joe attempts a second rescue in the house of wealthy businessman and state Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola). The camera emphasises in particular a black statue of a woman, and a painting of a semi-nude woman at the end of a corridor.

We are surrounded by depictions in our contemporary world of women as objects. We divide our contemporary world into small capsules (houses, rooms in houses) that we divide for the purposes of ‘privacy,’ and increasingly we remove common spaces for the purpose of developing property (the city as a pit of property development).

In each of these processes, there is an ideology of separation – of separating humans from each other and from the world that surrounds them through the erection of walls, and through the reduction of humans to objects (statues, paintings). If humans do not view each other as humans but as objects, then it is clear that humans will enact on each other things that are not humane, but which instead reinforce separation and objecthood.

For this reason, I say that sex trafficking is almost a logical consequence of the city.

But in making a film, is Ramsay not herself creating objects? Clearly, this is a risk that she runs. But it is perhaps for this reason that the characters in her film regularly elude the camera’s gaze – Joe leaves the frame, or is obscured from view – such that his life (and the lives of other characters) is paradoxically conveyed to us through its absence (Joe cannot be captured), rather than through its presence (which would be to reduce life by rendering the person an object; life must necessarily be other – otherwise it is not alive; and if it is other, it must necessarily elude us, since in eluding us, we get a sense that it has a life of its own, rather than being something that is there for us to/that we can control).

Through Joe regularly being absent from the frame (in never really being here), You Were Never Really Here suggests how in order to get a sense of ourselves, we have in some senses to question our own reality, rather than simply unthinkingly accepting it and its values.

What I mean by this is that if I am a product of my environment as much as I am an autonomous agent, and if life consists in an otherness that by definition eludes us, then ‘I’ am not what I think I am. In seeing that ‘I’ am not an ‘I’ that is separate from, but rather which is entangled with, my environment, I realise that ‘I’ is not really here. Indeed, I realise that ‘I’ is both here and there. And that to say ‘here’ is to  presume a fixed and autonomous ‘I.’ Properly to discover myself, I have to realise that I was never really here. You were never really here.

If you go with this perhaps necessarily obscure point (it is obscure in the sense that it is hard to see and, like Ramsay’s film, shrouded in darkness; we need to understand the importance of darkness and how to shine a light on darkness does not help us to understand it, but rather destroys it), then perhaps we can ask what cinema is.

For what cinema is, or what cinema can do, is to remind us that there is a world beyond us, and that we are thus not autonomous beings, but entangled beings.

How does cinema do this? Cinema does this by showing us other worlds.

Most films, however, show us other worlds as if they were objects for us to do with what we please. Like the statue and the painting, most films objectify the world that we see, and in the process they make us forget that we are watching a film (as the child molester forgets that he is molesting a human being). They do this through light and speed: there is nothing that eludes that mainstream film, but all is visible (darkness is destroyed), and everything moves so fast that it we do not have time to look at it for long enough to get a sense of its otherness.

In the film’s slowness and in Joe’s lumbering slowness, meanwhile, as well as in its emphasis on sheer physicality, we get a sense in You Were Not Really Here of how the film is other, moving at its own pace and not at the pace that we demand from it like slave drivers torturing their object-slaves into evermore accelerated productivity. Absent and slow, You Were Never Really Here runs the risk of alienating its audience (which is why Oscar does not and cannot acknowledge the film).

But through these very qualities, it takes on a life and shows us another world, reminding us not that we are immersed in a story-object as if we were there, but that we as viewers are seeing something other, and that we as viewers were never really here in the world where the story of You Were Never Really Here unfolds.

That is, the film in its title tells us to our faces that we are watching a film and that while this is a fiction, the power of its falseness lies in telling us that we are not autonomous beings, but that other people exist and that there are other ways of seeing the world beyond simply our own (paradoxically mass-produced) vision.

Not only were we never really here, but we’ve also never really been to me.

In 2010, Joaquin Phoenix returned to cinema after a hiatus with I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck, USA, 2010). In casting Phoenix (as well as in its references to Psycho), Ramsay seems once again to be making a film that self-consciously is a film – and one that approaches the critique of solipsism that we also find in Affleck’s film.

For, in Affleck’s mockumentary, Phoenix plays a would-be rapper called Joaquin Phoenix who is so out of touch with reality that he has absolutely no understanding of himself, so corrupted has he become by celebrity and self-absorption.

With Ramsay, Phoenix seems perhaps to be the only person who can see others as human beings and not as objects – the only person who is not solipsistic (and who rejects suicide on multiple occasions in spite of the pull towards it as an expression of how he regularly is made to feel alone in the world; perhaps it is noteworthy that his sense of otherness is experienced as a trauma undertaken both at home and at war, as if the family were as much a tool for war as military service itself).

What is more, Phoenix embodies arch solipsism in another film where he has to learn that he was never really Her (Spike Jonze, USA, 2013). That is, Theodore in that film must come to understand that the AI called Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) eludes him, even though she/it should be an object that he can control.

We are all connected. But we are connected by difference, and not by an ability to control each other. To reduce each other and our world to objects is to destroy the life of that world and those people, much like shining a light on darkness destroys it. Its otherness is a marker of its life.

Lynne Ramsay’s latest film is from start to finish a masterpiece, filled with pregnant images that promise great meaning. Greenwood’s score and Phoenix’s performance are as good as they get.

As Oscar struggles forever to get to grips with otherness (issues of gender, issues of race in the American film industry), it seems a shame that a masterpiece like this one should get overlooked. Perhaps Hollywood cannot recognise otherness when it sees it (and when it does, perhaps it seeks to control it, perhaps even by giving an award to it). In this way, perhaps You Were Never Really Here is better off outside of the Oscars. But I for one feel that my world has improved by having seen it.